One of the Hot Books of Summer 2020 is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, the second novel from the author of The Mothers. The Vanishing Half is about racism and identity (racial, gender), issues that have taken center stage in our national discourse this summer.
Why I picked it up: The Vanishing Half has gotten a ton of buzz (and a movie deal), and I am making a conscious effort to read and feature more BIPOC authors. It was my June BOTM pick.
Twin sisters Desiree and Stella escape their small Louisiana town in the 50s, moving to New Orleans to find more opportunity. They both have light skin, and Stella ends up moving away after getting romantically involved with her employer, a white man. Desiree, meanwhile, meets and marries a dark-skinned man and moves to DC. Stella reinvents herself as a white woman, turning her back on her sister and her old life and ending up in California. After suffering years of abuse from her husband, Desiree returns to the small town with her dark-skinned daughter Jude in tow, and while she always feels the acute loss of her twin sister, she settles in to life in her mother’s house. The Vanishing Half tracks Desiree and Stella’s lives, as well as the lives of Jude and Stella’s daughter Kennedy, whose lives intersect in Los Angeles.
I liked The Vanishing Half for the most part. The characters are complicated, Stella most of all with her denial of her blackness combined with her loneliness and longing for Desiree’s friendship. The divergent paths taken by the twins lead to parallel – yet wildly different – lives for the next generation. Both Jude and Kennedy, drawn to each other by an unspoken familial bond, pursue their own dreams and their own partners, meanwhile questioning their inscrutable mothers and scheming about how to reunite them.
The theme of disguise is threaded carefully throughout the book, from the premise of the whole town where the girls grew up to the clothes worn by Jude’s boyfriend and Stella’s white veneer. Even Kennedy’s choice of career – acting – underscores the identity issues each of the main characters experiences over the course of the book. Desiree is the least encumbered by her identity, but the stares drawn by her “blueblack” daughter and the questions raised by their contrasting appearances complicate her return to her hometown.
One complaint: the plot of The Vanishing Half depends too heavily on coincidence and symmetry to make its point. The coincidences detract from an otherwise powerful story that needed no such contrivances to hit its mark. I wish Bennett had been more trusting of the reader without manipulating the plot so blatantly. My frustration at these coincidences was blunted by the complexity of the characters, but I did find myself shaking my head at times, wondering, “Was that really necessary?”
I listened to The Vanishing Half on audio. The performance by Shayna Small was excellent. Her voice was rich and lyrical, and it really enhanced the book for me – I suspect I enjoyed it more on audio than I would have in print.
The Vanishing Half was Book #28 of 2020.